Column: Feeling the push-pull as Santa Anita races set up Breeders’ Cup
3-year-old wins Awesome Again Stakes
Saturday was a tough and tumble day of horse racing at Santa Anita. The two big favorites won and three additional horses got their free tickets punched to the Breeders’ Cup.
And somewhere up there, smiling broadly, was Teddy Roosevelt. He would have loved all the rough riding.
A gathering of 17,023 was lured to the Great Race Place by the prospect of five Grade I races, each worth $300,000. Each winner of these got an all-expense-paid trip to the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 Breeders’ Cup racing extravaganza.
The purse for that event is $27 million, and many of these horses and their connections won’t have to travel far. The Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita for the third straight year.
The biggest name horses were Shared Belief and Beholder.
Shared Belief won the Awesome Again Stakes and a free berth in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Beholder won the Zenyatta Stakes and will start in the $2-million Distaff.
Other winners were Angela Renee in the Chandelier Stakes, worth an entry in the Juvenile Fillies; American Pharaoh in the Frontrunner Stakes, worth an entry in the Juvenile Division, and Emollient in the Rodeo Drive Stakes, good for a spot in the Filly and Mare Turf Division.
The day began with jockey Drayden Van Dyke being dumped off his horse just out of the starting gate in the first race. He missed one race and returned later.
Then, in the Rodeo Drive, star jockey Mike Smith was sent flying to the turf as he turned for home on the outside aboard Moulin de Mougin. The horse looked like a race car, unable to get enough traction to make the turn and skidding out of control.
Smith was wide of all the other horses and missed being kicked by a flailing Moulin de Mougin, who ran off uninjured. But the incident created instant buzz around the track. In the next race, Smith was to ride Shared Belief.
He left in an ambulance, but was ready and smiling in the paddock 25 minutes later. Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of Shared Belief, said, “He’s an athlete. He’s tough. I didn’t expect him not to be here to ride.”
More toughness was immediately needed.
Smith broke well on Shared Belief, but seemed to be pushed wide a lot and had to work his horse hard to get him running room in the stretch. Shared Belief beat trainer Bob Baffert’s Fed Biz, with Martin Garcia riding, by a neck. The usual margin of victory for unbeaten Shared Belief is more like three lengths.
Afterward, as the horses returned to the finish line, tension was obvious.
Victor Espinoza, who rode Baffert’s other entry, last-place finishing Sky Kingdom, had a quick and angry exchange of words with Alex Solis II, a part owner of Shared Belief.
Then, a clearly angry Smith said, “They tried to use some tactics on me that made the win today even sweeter. They just kept taking me wide, taking me wide, and I believe, if you want to press the pace or take me out wide a little bit, OK. But doing it at all costs just to get me beat isn’t the way it should be done. It was to the extreme. I thought it was ridiculous. You just don’t do that.”
Baffert said that his only instruction to his two riders, Garcia and Espinoza, was to avoid a speed duel between his two horses.
“I don’t give instructions like that,” he said. “This was just horse racing. This is a great horse with a target on his back, just like [Baffert’s now retired] Game On Dude always had. I thought Shared Belief just showed what a great horse he is by running a great race.”
Baffert said later he had talked to Hollendorfer, who told him he had no problem with any of the racing tactics.
“We’re all big boys,” Hollendorfer said. “It’s no big deal for me. Mike [Smith] will have to settle up with Victor [Espinoza]. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a tough race and be double fit for the Breeders Cup.
“That race will be tougher, so we’ll need to be tougher too.”
Rosie Napravnik, an Eastern rider, had a big day for trainer Bill Mott. She won on Emollient and also won an earlier race.
Espinoza rode to the Frontrunner title for Baffert on American Pharaoh and was second on Baffert’s Tiz Midnight in the Zenyatta. Tiz Midnight was passed by Beholder and Smith and then made a late run and closed the winning gap to three-quarters of a length.
Richard Mandella, who trains Beholder and will do so for her one last race, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, before she is sold and retired, said he was especially happy because Beholder had recovered so well from a recent injury. She had suffered a bad cut on her left hind leg June 7 at Belmont, and then reinjured it in a workout near the end of the Del Mar meeting.
“We had to put five stitches in it,” Mandella said, adding that few other horses would have recovered fast enough to race like Beholder did Saturday.
Rafael Bejarano, another top rider, completed a big day for veteran jockeys with his ride on Todd Pletcher’s Angela Renee.
“I would love to be on her in the Breeders’ Cup,” Bejarano said.
In the East, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park brought another Breeders’ Cup entry, this year’s Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist. In that race, won by veteran Joel Rosario on Tonalist, jockey Rajiv Maragh was knocked off his horse, Wicked Strong, and suffered an arm injury.
So, if Saturday was any indication, the Breeders’ Cup will be a day of speaking softly and carrying a big stick — and hopefully not using them on the horses.
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